What I want to talk about is Brink. Yeah, maybe you remember it coming out this past May, maybe you've already forgotten it. The general reception among critics and players was poor scores and bad initial impressions. But I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed in Brink. I want to single it out as a game which failed to deliver on its unusually large stockpile of potential and promising ideas – Brink is the game of 2011 for which I would most like to see a sequel.
Brink was a disappointment, but in a year of third sequels and an age of CoD-clones, it was perhaps the most original new take on the competitive FPS genre in 2011. Brink disappointed expectations set up by its marketing, and as-shipped it was plagued with serious technical problems. The glitches and performance issues were mostly addressed by patches that showed up too late to salvage the game's reputation or buttress it against a precipitous player-retention rate. A properly handled sequel which expanded upon Brink's many promising ideas while restoring public confidence could be a fantastic game, as well as the shake-up the online FPS world desperately needs.
Brink was developed by Splash Damage – if your bonafides are in order, you'll recognize them as the cats who made Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. My brother and I had gotten pretty deep into Enemy Territory's beta/demo, which predated the release of TF2 by years, and delivered class-based, objective multiplayer that was exciting and dynamic. Splash Damage started as a mod team that graduated to working as contractors on games, and had made multiplayer and DLC maps for a number of titles. Wolf: ET was their first big release, but it was a free-to-play (before it was cool) online shooter under an existing IP. Brink was the team's first major-publisher backed, original IP-based crack at the real retail games market. When the first details of the project came out, including Splash Damage's role as developer, I was quite excited to see what would come of it.
Brink, believe it or not, was announced officially on the 29th of May, in the year of our lord two-thousand and NINE. When it was revealed, the release was targeted for 'Spring 2010”. It did not release until May 10th, 2011. If you haven't had your morning coffee yet, that is a full year or delays from the projected date. Remember as well, if they announced it Spring '09, they probably started work on it in late 2007 or early 2008, because that is how the industry works. Splash Damage teamed up with the publishing arm of Bethesda to release Brink as their first retail game, and when you consider the year of delays and their freshman nature in the big leagues, the disconnect between aspiration and final product is not surprising, but still disappointing.
The lengthily pre-release hype cycle made promises that were not delivered, and failed to clear up popular misconceptions about what the game was going to be. I didn't follow the hype too closely (I have a very limited apatite for marketing, even in things that interest me) but I had gotten the impression from early interviews that the game was going to feature some form of open-world single-player with dynamic goals and a Dark Souls-like ability to bring in players to aide you or join a friend's game.
I don't remember the specifics, but just before the game released I found out that this wasn't the case and I was disappointed that they had dropped some of the most interesting ideas, but I was still interested in Brink as it was to be released: a class-based, objective multiplayer game. When the game rolled out, it became clear that I was in a minority. There was a large population of people who seemed to also think the game was going to have a 'real' single-player aspect, rather than a comparatively simple bot-match mode. People were really upset about this. I suppose if I had discovered that expectations of a deep single player mode that had been set more than a year before release were not borne out after buying the game, I would have been more upset as well.
Players were greatly irritated by the gulf between what they had expected from hype reels released in 2009 and the final product delivered in 2011. This was the fault of the marketing and developers not setting proper expectations or dispelling incorrect assumptions. I picked up that the game wasn't going to feature a robust single-player experience before launch, but clearly a large (and loud) majority missed that and expected a game more in-line with earlier marketing and developer interviews. I imagine the Splash Damage team had loftier goals that had to be cut back when faced with the reality of making a full retail game for the first time, but by failing to message this to the customers effectively they engender a lot of negative feeling for the game when it released.
Of course disappointed expectations and negative feelings from inflated marketing were just one element of a troubled launch, Brink faced serious technical problems at release as well. The console versions shipped broken, I don't remember what all the issues were because I had it on PC, but I think the 360 match making was busted at least. On the PC side, users with certain hardware configurations were unable to play the game, or suffered massive graphical glitching. People without those problems found the game to run poorly – even on beefy computers.
My computer was pretty much brand new when Brink released, and it torpedoed the recommended specs, but I had to turn off some of the bells and whistles like SSAO and motion blur to get the game to run reasonably – in this regard I had a better experience than most users who faced problems with GeForce drivers and some specific ATI cards ranging from non-booting games to full-screen texture glitching. Memorably one particular map would consistently lose all sound after a minute or so, leaving everybody playing in uncomfortable silence.
Joining games on PC was a laborious task, made worse by limited filtering options. Once connected, it definitely seemed like the netcode was poor – it did a bad job smoothing out connection problems and suffered from very dodgy client-side prediction (which made shooting and dealing damage feel inconsistent and excessively weak). Out of the box, the online experience was evocative of my time playing Q3A and UT, like they didn't want to license the 'good' middleware for hiding latency or something. I have only a basic understanding of what goes into netcode to begin with, and no knowledge of what decisions or resources the Splash Damage team were limited by, but my subjective experience was not uncommon, and if felt like the online experience was a holdover from the turn of the century – strangely bereft of a decade of progress and improvement.
So the game had a rough launch week, with reception problems because of an over-long, over-promising hype cycle and incompetent information control, and mechanical problems because of a host of connectivity and graphical problems. The communication problems did not diminish the fact that the game, though more limited than anticipated by many, still featured many inspired ideas and solid gameplay. The technical problems were all issues that could be patched. While the launch week looked rough, given time, one might assume that it could patch the glitches and stand on the strength of its online play.
Sadly, this was the “Fist of the North Star” moment for Brink – as an effectively multiplayer-only game, its buggy and problematic launch, and tepid critical response meant it was still walking and talking, but almost certainly “already dead”. Launch period coverage focused on the bugs and glitches (and rightly so), while consumers grumbled at the lack of a fully fleshed single-player campaign and a small number of maps, creating a pervasive anti-buzz for the game at just the moment it needed to build a critical mass of players.
It doesn't matter that those technical problems were in fact addressed within weeks by a series of patches and some driver hotfixes. It doesn't matter that the multiplayer maps were large, multi-stage affairs with creative pathing options and possibilities for inter-class teamwork. Because people held off on purchasing, or took a bath on their purchase after their first impression, Brink did not rally the necessary population of invested players that an online shooter needs to be sustainable.
For me, the failure of Brink to capture an audience large enough to keep the game vital and varied was one of the most disappointing aspects in a collection of more and less tangible disappointments. Disregarding the shortfalls between aspiration and execution, anticipation and realization, once patched up, the game was a solid online shooter which harkened back to some earlier conventions, while introducing a host of admirable new ideas. It presented a welcome breath of fresh air in a market dominated by modern military shooters derived from Counter-Strike and Modern Warfare. Splash Damage, the publishing arm of Bethesda, and any marketing firms they contracted fucked everything about Brink's launch up such that the patches were too little, too late, and the game was doomed by not reaching critical mass.
Steam tells me I played Brink for a little more than 60 hours. I had a lot of fun, but by the end of the month, I was having to connect to German and French servers to get a game going at the weird times of day I play (what with nightshift work and all). When the new maps and raised level cap were released as the “Agents of Change” DLC (for free, by way of apology), I ducked back in for a little, but that popular-interest swell didn't last, and neither did I.
That is how Brink failed, but the inability to live up to customer expectations, or to gather a reasonable playerbase for enduring online play are not why the game was a disappointment. Lots of games over-promise and under-deliver, lots of games dry up online against the withering competition of titans like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Brink disappointed because the game was, for all its faults, promising and unique in terms of artistic design, scenario building, and execution of gameplay design.
At the very least, Splash Damage/Bethesda should license the scripting and know-how behind SMART, the 'parkour' traversal system, if only as a public service. After Brink, no first-person game should get away with forcing you to circumnavigate a waist-high box or 'Mario jump' over a handrail (that is, an unsupported, standing, leg-only, impossibly high jump, seen in everything from Counter-Strike to Halo). The great sense of physicality in Brink's traversal, from the 'home base' slide to the Prince of Persia style ledge-grab puts other games to shame. Not every game needs to let the player wall-run-rebound like a ninja, but when most FPS games make you feel like a camera on a dolly, it is distracting and lazy.
If the launch of Brink had gone smoothly, and if customer expectations had been set properly, I believe the game would have been far more successful than it was. Rather than ending up in $10 bins within months, I am certain that if game shipped as it existed post-patch would have justified additional DLC support and fostered a strong community. I believe that Brink should get a second chance in the form of a sequel – perhaps with the assistance of a more seasoned co-developer (or at least some poached staff), Splash Damage could expand on the appealing fiction and setting of Brink, and further develop the overlooked depth of their class-based objective gameplay, and redeem the disappointing Brink into a fertile franchise.